The western Great Lakes region is home to a number of high-profile children’s book publishers, including American Girl, headquartered in Middleton, Wis., a Madison suburb, and Albert Whitman & Company, in Park Ridge, Ill., a Chicago suburb. While these two companies are best known for their signature products—American Girl’s line of historical and contemporary dolls and Whitman’s Boxcar Children series—the two are not resting on their laurels.

Founded in 1919, Whitman continues to extend the beloved Boxcar Children brand—the 137 books in the middle-grade series have sold more than 60 million copies worldwide—by releasing in August a full-length animated feature film in DVD format inspired by the first book in the series, The Boxcar Children. The Boxcar Children Adventure Guide, containing activities inspired by the books, is being released this fall.

But the Boxcar Children isn’t all that Whitman is focusing on: renowned for its picture books and chapter books, the company began publishing fiction for teens two years ago. Of the 27 books on its fall list, three are YA novels: Stronger Than You Know by Jolene Perry; Opposite of Love by Sarah Lynn Scheerger; and A Different Me by Deborah Blumenthal.

“We’re in the YA business now,” says Whitman president John Quattrocchi, noting that two YA releases are selling especially well: Being Henry David by Cal Armistead (2013) has sold 40,000–50,000 and The Lifeguard by Deborah Blumenthal (2012) has sold 50,000 copies. Company revenues reflect the success of the expansion into YA: revenue was up 12% last fiscal year and is expected to be on par this year.

American Girl, part of a larger company that has been a subsidiary of Mattel since 1998, is also evolving as it approaches its 30th anniversary in 2016. The company is rebranding its flagship line of eight historical dolls and accompanying books this fall, calling it BeForever. The six-book series that accompanies each of the dolls is being adapted and repackaged into a two-volume novel format.

“The level and size of books girls are reading today is increasing,” director of marketing Jenifer Warrell explains of the company’s latest

venture. American Girl also launches this fall a new line of BeForever Journey books, which feature multi-ending adventures narrated by a contemporary character who travels back in time and meets a historical character.

“The Minnesota Mafia”

Home to a plethora of children’s authors and book publishers, plus Mackin Educational Resources distributing to the school and library market, the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota, even the Alphabet Forest activity center at the Minnesota State Fair that’s been maintained by author Debra Frasier since 2010, Minnesota is widely regarded as a major center of children’s book publishing.

“New York is New York. There’s nothing to compare it to, except for maybe London,” declares Adam Lerner, the president of Lerner Publishing Group, founded 55 years ago by his father, Harry, “but this area has been leading the way. We’re mostly privately owned and family run, so when we see an opportunity, we don’t need to see someone who is primarily focusing on an adult list to get an answer. We just do it. We’re very entrepreneurial and very aggressive.”

In fact, Lerner says, the children’s book publishing community—“especially the educational publishers” who are clustered in the Twin Cities and in Mankato, 80 miles south—is commonly referred to by publishing insiders elsewhere as the “Minnesota Mafia.” While ABDO, the Child’s World, Bellwether, Black Rabbit, and Oliver Press primarily serve the school and library market, Capstone Publishing Group, the Creative Company, and Lerner have all moved into the trade by launching divisions or imprints specifically targeting that market.

While sales to the trade represent only 20% of Lerner’s net revenue, the company is committed to building up its presence, particularly via its Carolrhoda and Carolrhoda Lab imprints, which, together, publish approximately 20 titles each year. “It’s a real trade line, not a repackaged line,” Lerner notes. “We want to bring in the best authors and nurture them with the right positioning. I kind of regard Carolrhoda and Carolrhoda Lab as our Knopf.” Carolrhoda’s lead picture book release this fall is Bug on a Bike by Chris Monroe, while Lab’s lead YA release is Knockout Games by G. Neri. The U.K. edition of one spring 2015 Lab release, The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks, won the prestigious Carnegie Medal this past June, solidifying Lerner’s position as a major player in trade acquisitions.

Mankato’s Creative Company is, like Lerner Publishing, family owned. Its current CEO, Tom Peterson, is the grandson of George P. Peterson, who founded the company in 1932. There are four imprints: Creative Education serves the institutional market and Creative Editions serves the trade with hardcover picture books. A third imprint, Creative Paperbacks, releases backlist. A new, fourth imprint releases books in digital formats. Five years ago, Chronicle started distributing Creative to the trade, and retail sales have since “more than doubled,” but that still represents only 20% of the company’s net revenue.

While it focuses on the educational market, however, v-p of sales Anna Erickson says that the company has always been committed to the trade. Not only are there 10–12 Creative Editions releases each year, but there are also 85 Creative Editions backlist titles in print.

“We take an old-school approach,” she says. “We keep books in print for years, and we nurture relationships over the long term with authors and illustrators. We focus on a body of work, not just a single title.” Besides launching the digital imprint, the only significant changes to Creative’s list has been the addition of board books—including nonfiction—to its picture books lineup, which previously was predominantly fiction. Creative has also added sidelines, products inspired by its picture books, such as Lineup for Yesterday baseball cards.

Among the company’s fall releases is Harlem Hellfighters by J. Patrick Lewis and Gary Kelley and The Forever Flowers by Michael J. Rosen and Sonja Danowski. The authors and illustrators are all well known at Creative, having published numerous books under the Creative Editions imprint.

The largest of the Minnesota children’s publishers, Capstone Publishing Group, is also headquartered in Mankato, with a satellite office near Minneapolis. While Capstone primarily serves the educational market, it expanded into the trade in 2012 with the launch of Capstone Young Readers line. The newest imprint in the CYR line, Switch Press, launches this fall with three fiction and one nonfiction titles for YA readers: The Isobel Journal, an illustrated memoir by 18-year-old Isobel Harrop; Grace and the Guiltless by Erin Johnson; Half My Facebook Friends Are Ferrets by J.A. Buckle; and The Diamond Thief by Sharon Gosling.

While sales to the trade represent only 15% of Capstone’s total revenue, they have doubled in the 36-month period ending December 31, 2013.

Free Spirit continues to publish self-help books for children and resources for educators. This fall, it is publishing the ninth in the bestselling Best Behavior series of board books that began with Hands Are Not for Hitting more than a decade ago: Noses Are Not for Picking by Elizabeth Verdick. If there’s any shift in the 31-year-old company’s focus, it’s the expansion beyond books about children’s social and emotional needs to their educational needs, with such titles as The Survival Guide for School Success. Free Spirit is also, in publicist Anastasia Scott’s words, “selectively” publishing books for teens, such as Being Me with OCD by Alison Dotson, originally published as en e-book original, and subsequently in print format this past spring, due to demand.

Children’s Publishing Is Where It’s At

While Sourcebooks, in Chicago’s suburbs, and Llewellyn, in St. Paul’s suburbs, are well known for their adult lists, both have built upon their successes by aggressively expanding into children’s publishing. Llewellyn launched its Flux YA fiction imprint in 2006 and Sourcebooks its Jabberwocky children’s imprint a year later, in 2007. In 2009, Sourcebooks launched its Fire imprint, which publishes YA fiction.

Just like Llewellyn as a whole, publicist Mallory Hayes says, Flux sets trends. Long before “We need diverse books” became a catchphrase in children’s publishing, Hayes says, Flux was committed to publishing alternative voices: approximately 20%–25% of Flux titles in print can be classified as diverse, featuring protagonists who are LGBT and/or people of color. Characters of mixed races and from different religions also feature in Flux releases.

“We’re smaller and family owned,” Hayes says, “we can take chances,” noting that of this fall’s nine Flux releases, seven are debut authors. Flux published the debut novels of Maggie Stiefvater, Simone Elkeles, and A.S. King, who all have since moved on to larger publishers.

Sales of Sourcebooks’ children’s and YA titles have been steadily rising, with a 63% growth in 2013, much of it due to Sourcebooks’ Put Me in the Story digital platform for creating personalized picture books, as well as its Santa Claus Is Coming holiday series of 97 regional picture books. Not only does Sourcebooks intend to reissue and expand upon the series this holiday season, but it is building upon the regional concept in 2015 with picture books featuring the Easter Bunny in various towns, cities, states, and at famous landmarks.

World Book Encyclopedia, which has been headquartered in Chicago since 1917 and serves the school and library markets, has also moved into children’s book publishing with the 2012 launch of Bright Connections, publishing nonfiction and picture books for the trade. This move, says WBE president Donald Keller, is a return to WBE’s roots as a consumer-based company. Taking what WBE editor-in-chief Paul Kobasa describes as “a breather” after releasing five books in fall 2012 and spring 2013, Bright Connections issued two frontlist titles designed to “work on a number of levels,” educating and entertaining a broad range of readers: J Is for Jazz by Ann Ingalls, illustrated by Maria Corte Madigan (who designed the 2013 and 2014 Monterey Jazz Festival posters), and Invisible to the Eye: Animals in Disguise by Kendra Muntz. “Bright Connections complements all the great things we do [at WBE],” Kobasa says.

St. Paul’s Redleaf Press, which specializes in publishing curriculum, management, and business titles for early childhood education professionals, has also expanded into the children’s trade market. Redleaf Lane, a picture book imprint that will publish about a dozen titles each year, launched this past spring with six releases. In 2015, Redleaf Lane is breaking new ground by publishing Noah Chases the Wind by Michelle Worthington, illustrated by Joseph Cowman, about a child on the autistic spectrum.

“For close to 40 years, Redleaf Press has been publishing resources for the grownups who care for and educate young children,” content development editor Laurie Herrmann says. “Redleaf Lane will do the same, but for children.”

In contrast, Scarletta, which began in 2005 as a publisher of adult titles, is rebranding itself as primarily a children’s publisher. In 2013, the Minneapolis publisher released 10 children’s titles and two adult titles. This fall, it is releasing three titles, one for adults. “We’re still in transition, but we’re continuing to move in that direction,” publisher Nancy Tuminelly says. While not disclosing percentages, Tuminelly notes that sales “are very much going up” since the rebranding.

Scarletta’s Monster & Me series of picture books by Paul Czajak, illustrated by Wendy Grieb, is really taking off, Tuminelly says: Target has started carrying the series, and Monster Needs a Costume, a 2013 release, was picked up by several mass merchandise retailers in time for Halloween.

Scarletta, which just published Monster Needs a Christmas Tree, is planning on two Monster & Me releases each year in 2015 and 2016.

Another Scarletta series has made waves: the first in a planned five-book middle-grade series by Ellen Prager, The Shark Whisperer, sold out its 5,000-copy initial print run within 12 days after its author, a marine scientist and Today Show consultant, talked it up on television. “All of our authors are aggressive,” Tuminelly notes. “They’re doing what it takes to reach readers.”

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